Armenian domestic agenda in May was overwhelmed by the judiciary reform developments. EU promises of support dominated in the economy. Meanwhile, foreign policy focused on the peace process with Nagorno Karabakh.
Crisis over judicial reform escalates
District court judge took a controversial decision on May 18 to release former President Robert Kocharian from pre-trial detention. The grounds for such a decision were that the prosecutors failed to legally demonstrate the need for the former president’s custody pending his trial on charges of attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order” during fatal clashes in a post-election confrontation in February-March 2008. That decision angered many and sparked a sharp rebuke by Pashinyan, who criticized many judges for their lack of independence and alleging links to Armenia’s “corrupt” former leaders. The same presiding judge, Davit Grigorian, then suspended the Kocharian trial on May 20, arguing that a “suspicion of discrepancy” between the charges and the constitution requires him to submit the case for legal review by the Constitutional Court.
Reflecting the heightened tension, Gagik Harutiunian, the chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a body officially empowered to nominate new judges, monitor courts and enforce the independence of the judiciary, resigned on May 24, citing concerns over “ongoing developments relating to the judicial authority”. Later that day, Harutiunyan’s brother Arzuman resigned his post as the number two official in charge of the country’s National Security Service (NSS), the successor to the Armenian KGB.
More on the judiciary reform and its importance for the Armenian government after the revolution – in our analytical article “Armenia’s revolution continues”
Armenian President meets IMF chief
On May 16 Armenian President Armen Sarkissian met with the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, on the sidelines of an international economic forum in Kazakhstan. During the meeting the Armenian president advocated IMF assistance in transforming the country into a “financial hub” by leveraging the country’s “mature banking and financial systems”. The IMF has been providing crucial support to Armenia and extended a fresh $250 million loan to Armenia in support of Armenian government’s macroeconomic policies and “ambitious” reform agenda. The latest loan, as a “precautionary stand-by arrangement,” would be disbursed in several installments over three years and is further aimed at strengthening “resilience against external shocks”, coming in the wake of an earlier IMF loan package that ran from 2014-2017.
EU pledges financial support for large infrastructure projects
The head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, Piotr Switalski, stated on May 10 that in principle the European Union is prepared to finance “very costly” infrastructure projects proposed by the Armenian government, which will focus on the construction of highways as the continuation of the North-South corridor and the construction of a highway to the Iranian border. Ambassador Switalski also praised the government’s reform programme, noting that “during these 12 months Armenia has changed”, with “undeniable gains and successes”, especially in the fight against corruption. The promise of EU support follows a similar announcement on May 9 by the World Bank, which will extend a new $15 million loan to finance the reconstruction and repairs of some 61 kilometers of roads. This is to be matched by the Armenian government’s contribution of a further $3.8 million in “additional financing” for the approved Lifeline Road Improvement Project (LRIP) that has already modernized about 433 kilometers of Armenian roads since 2009. Counting this new loan, since 1992 the World Bank has provided nearly $2.4 billion in funding, comprised largely of low-interest loans, , affirming the World Bank’s role as the leading foreign creditor for Armenia.
Nagorno Karabakh peace process continues
In an announcement by Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Anna Naghdalyan of May 27, a new round of talks will be held between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. The announcement comes immediately following the visit to Yerevan by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, the official mediators of Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict, who met with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The “upcoming meeting” between Foreign Ministers Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov will follow an earlier round of talks in Moscow on April 15 that was hosted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and concluded with a joint statement reiterating their intention to strengthen the ceasefire regime around Karabakh and along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and reconfirming others to take confidence-building measures.
This next ministerial meeting also comes after a brief conversation on May 13 in Brussels between Prime Minister Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, in the leaders’ fifth face-to-face contact since September 2018. In interview comments to Russian media on May 27, the Azerbaijani foreign minister said that while Azerbaijan provided the Armenian leadership time to “familiarize itself with details of the negotiation process” last year, “that transitional phase ended” and “negotiations resumed” with a “dialogue” based on “the existing format and under a particular agenda, which gives rise to certain optimism”. He further added that mutual confidence-building measures must be matched by “real steps in the negotiation process” and “elimination of severe consequences”, with a “withdrawal of occupation forces from Azerbaijan’s territories”.
China andArmenia forge visa-free travel agreement
Following the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Yerevan , an agreement was signed on May 26 for visa-free travel that will allow Armenian and Chinese citizens to visit for up to 90 days. The agreement, aimed at boosting tourism and business ties, as well as other exchanges, comes after an official state visit of Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan to Beijing onMay 14-15, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. The outlook for such deepening of relations is already promising, as China stands as Armenia’s second largest trading partner, with bilateral trade increasing by over 29%, to $771 million, last year.